Case Study

Online civil courts enhance equitable access to justice and a more people-centered justice system

ENGAGEMENT HIGHLIGHTS

Judges
Courts
over
k
litigants surveyed

THE OPPORTUNITY

Each year, millions of self-represented or unrepresented litigants encounter the U.S. civil justice systems, which was largely designed for litigants with lawyers. Many of these unrepresented individuals are members of racially and socially disadvantaged groups. There is also a clear imbalance of representation between plaintiffs and defendants in many types of civil case, for example in Indiana, 70% of landlord-plaintiffs had legal representation vs. only one percent of tenant-defendants; 98% of debt collector-plaintiffs had legal representation vs. 4% of debtor-defendants.

The global COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented disruptions to court proceedings and forced our civil justice system to rapidly navigate shifting to remote proceedings and adoption of platforms, such as Zoom and Webex. These shifts presented new technology and adoption challenges, but also created the opportunity to study the experiences and outcomes of unrepresented individuals and vulnerable populations who participate remotely.

Can offering remote access to the civil justice system help provide more equitable access and a more people-centered justice system?

OUR PARTNERSHIP

The Equity Accelerator (EA) in partnership with Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, Indiana Coalition for Court Access, Indiana Bar Foundation, and with support from Schmidt Futures and American Bar Foundation, formed a collaboration between an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Indiana University, Stanford, and UC Santa Barbara and a statewide network of court partners affiliated with Indiana's Supreme Court, Coalition for Court Access, and Office of Judicial Administration (OJA) to developed a first-of-its-kind online digital experience sampling platform to gather, analyze and understand the experiences of unrepresented litigants in state courts. 

We recruited 58 Indiana judges, across 40 courts and 12 counties, to field the experience sampling platform in their civil courts, allowing us to reach over 20,000 litigants, and ultimately collecting data from over 2,000 respondents, largely unrepresented litigants from high volume civil dockets, including eviction, debt collection, small claims, and family law cases. Litigants were sent SMS and email surveys shortly after their hearings.

The respondents are representative of a diverse sampling of civil case types. Seventy percent of respondents attended court in person, while 30% accessed remotely, either via Zoom, Webex, or dial in by phone. There were some clear demographic gaps between unrepresented defendants and plaintiffs, including: Racial-ethnicity: 46% of defendants vs. 30% of plaintiffs self-identified as People of Color; Education: 27% of defendants vs. 46% of plaintiffs had college education or higher; and Disabilities: 26% of defendants vs. 19% of plaintiffs reported a disability.

Our approach

  • Unique partnership of interdisciplinary team of researchers, network of court innovation and design experts, state-wide court partners
  • First-of-its-kind digital experience sampling platform
  • Provide empirical data & give voice to unrepresented & vulnerable litigants

THE IMPACT

Our study explored multiple dimensions of litigants’ experiences, including in person vs. remote hearing modalities; evaluations of procedural and distributive justice; outcomes; and structural, technological, and psychological affordances and barriers faced with in-person and remote proceedings. 

Key research findings:

  • Online civil courts enhance access to justice for unrepresented litigants
  • Unrepresented persons who accessed court remoted wished to do so in the future
  • Remote proceedings improved their experiences of procedural justice, outcome satisfaction, and reduced litigants’ stress
  • Remote proceedings removed structural barriers including employment, childcare, transportation

Our research and report, Accessing Justice With Zoom: Experiences And Outcomes In Online Civil Courts, emphasizes the importance of listening to and learning from the lived experiences of unrepresented and underserved litigants and those to guide innovation and people-centered design within the civil justice system. As different courts and systems are re-adjusting to a post-pandemic atmosphere, it is important to have this empirical research to help in the discussion for innovation and people-centered design to promote more equitable access and outcomes in civil courts.

We were honored that Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush recognized EA’s Victor Quintanilla and his research team on the value of this resaerch in her State of the Judiciary addresson January 10, 2024:

Their research revealed ‘loudly and resoundingly: online civil courts enhance access to justice for unrepresented litigants.’ For a person who has to find a ride to court, miss work, or get childcare, remote access is not just about flexibility—it is the lynchpin to getting their case resolved, getting justice. Simply logging on to a remote proceeding—at times—is far more practical than jumping the hurdles that can accompany attending court in person. Thank you, Professor Victor Quintanilla and team for your research. It provides guidance on how we can use technology to meet the ‘promise of a people-centered justice system.
Hon Loretta H. Rush

Hon Loretta H. Rush

Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice

Read the full report

Accessing Justice With Zoom: Experiences And Outcomes In Online Civil Courts

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